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Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews

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Interview

An Interview With DAVE HUTCHINSON by George Sandison

61b127488e3dc8bfdaca50ccc7ccc062_original 2084

Unsung Stories (unsungstories.co.uk)

Currently on Kickstarter: unsungstories.co.uk/2084

Indie publisher Unsung Stories are currently running a Kickstarter project to fund the release of 2084, an anthology of dystopian fiction from some of the biggest names in the genre. Fully funded within the first 24 hours, the anthology is now heading towards its third stretch goal. You can find out all the information you need, and back this awesome project, here. In case you need any further encouragement, check out the current list of contributors:

    • Jeff Noon
    • Christopher Priest
    • James Smythe
    • Lavie Tidhar
    • Aliya Whiteley
    • David Hutchinson
    • Cassandra Khaw
    • Desirina Boskovich
    • Anne Charnock
    • Ian Hocking
    • Oliver Langmead
    • Courttia Newland
    • Irenosen Okojie

To celebrate the birth of this ambitious anthology, Unsung Stories publisher, George Sandison, has interviewed author Dave Hutchinson about his story, the anthology and lots more. So, sit back, relax and enjoy the video below.

An Interview with ANTONIN VARENNE

image003 (1) Name: ANTONIN VARENNE

Author of: BED OF NAILS (2012)
                      LOSER’S CORNER (2014)
                      RETRIBUTION ROAD (2017)

Antonin Varenne was awarded the Prix Michel Lebrun and the Grand Prix du Jury Sang d’encre for Bed of Nails, his first novel to be translated into English. His second, Loser’s Corner was awarded the Prix des Lecteurs Quais du polar – 20 minutes and the Prix du Meilleur Polar Francophone. Retribution Road, translated into English by Sam Taylor and published by MacLehose Press is now available.

Thank you, Antonin, for taking the time to chat with us.

The scope of Retribution Road is vast, ranging from the East India Company’s campaign in Burma to the fledgling American West almost a decade later. What sort of research was involved in ensuring you got all the detail correct?

Research materials come from all sorts of sources, books, movies, documentaries, the internet and a few blogs. I read hardly any novels about this time period and the places in the book, only studies, biographies, even a bit of Darwin’s theory that I had studied at the university years back. I read the books that the main character, Arthur Bowman, discovers along his journey; Irving Washington, Thoreau… but they were not novels either. Reading a contemporary historian like Howard Zinn was inspirational too. The scene of the arrival of Bowman in New York, in the middle of a demonstration of female workers, is a tribute to Zinn’s historical work and political engagement. Sometimes, I read to get material for a scene, sometimes reading gave me the idea of a scene. It goes both ways.

And how does this compare to the research involved in writing a contemporary French-set thriller such as Bed of Nails?

The freedom of imagining a story is comparable for two books as different as these two, but in a contemporary universe, a lot of things don’t have to be checked: I know the speed of the cars, the name of the train stations, I know the towns… In Retribution Road, I had to check everything: how fast does a rider on his horse travel, when does he have to change the horses, was there a town or waterway on his itinerary, could you drink a draft beer in London in 1858? Take a train to Liverpool and be back the next day? How long did it take to sail from Madras to Rangoon? How many soldiers were there on a war ship of the East India Company? Were there worker unions in the US in 1859? And so on. To be accurate, you sometimes spend two or three hours to fine-tune a little detail, which is something you don’t have to think about when writing contemporary fiction. But it is part of the pleasure as well, to immerse yourself into the research. As I mentioned before, it is fuel for the imagination.

One of the most striking things about the novel is that we never learn the whole truth about what happened to Arthur Bowman and his team during their six months of captivity in the jungle. We catch little more than glimpses of the horror they experienced as the story progresses, and through the map of scars on Bowman’s body. Can you talk us through the logic behind this decision?

It came from a decision I made after I published my very first book in 2006 (not translated). I didn’t think too much about the impact it could have, and it had almost none since it sold only a few hundred copies! But it was very violent, a serial killer story. Then I realized that violence had become an industry in the thriller genre, that if I was to really become a writer, I had to take a position on that matter. So I decided not to not write about violence, but to not do it lightly. No blood for the thrills, but to talk about something with more importance, like war and its traumas (Bed Of Nails), torture (Loser’s Corner). When I chose a veteran as the main character of Retribution Road, both executioner and victim, I still decided be careful with the treatment of violence; in this book there is another serial killer, but the causes that induce his behaviour are more important than the creation of yet another killer, just for the sake of it. So the descriptions of the murders are rather elliptic, and the same goes for the torture in Burma. Another thing that I had discovered writing Loser’s Corner, about the institutionalization of torture during the Algerian war, is that sometimes not seeing is as scary and potent as telling everything.

What are you working on now? Should we expect more sweeping historical epics (and maybe even a return of Arthur Bowman), or are we likely to see a return to the Gallic noir through which we first encountered you?

Well, I just published a book named “Equateur” in France, not really a sequel to Retribution Road, but a story starting where Arthur Bowman’s ends, in the USA, in 1872. But this time the travel doesn’t follow the sunset in the west, but goes down south, in Central America, then French Guyana where I spent a year with my family. And I am now writing a story whose principal character is related to Arthur Bowman (I don’t want to spoil his story), in 1900, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. I think this third book would be the end of this cycle. After that, I think about something completely different.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

It’s hard to just mention a few names, and to know which ones really have been influential on my writing: but in France I would say Jean-Patrick Manchette, and one of the first American writers I discovered, James Ellroy, but my admiration for him is fading (he never went past his obsessions, and his creativity kind of dried out, or it’s me who’s not into that kind of reading anymore, I don’t know); same kind of lost love for Cormac McCarthy (I thought he was the king of using the least amount of words necessary, then I realized that in fact he was sometimes very, very talkative; I could never finish reading Blood Meridian; he is a fabulous writer, but I just got bored, or I had something else to do…).

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

That would be We Come Back As Shadows (don’t know if it is the title chosen in English) by the great Mexican author Paco Ignacio Taibo II. He is an historian by trade, and an eternal creator of amazing adventures in different time periods of his home country. He is a political activist, a heavy smoker, a man who cultivates friendship and love.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Antonin Varenne look like?

A writing day must start early in the morning, without a hangover and without too much sun, because then I go ride my motorcycles. If it is a good day for writing, I will skip lunch, human communication with my family, and come out of my office like a zombie, wondering what is that strange unreal world surrounding me.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Wow. To pursue fiction writing, you need to like and want to write before thinking about making a career out of it. It seems sometimes that success in literature comes from a recipe, ingredients well mixed and good marketing; but it is because somebody somewhere started something and usually did it sincerely, genuinely; then it became a trend and the others followed and copied. So to make a career, you start by writing what you want. And if it is different, it might take a while to find its readers, but if it is good, it will take off. If you worry about what people will think and want of your books, your personality is dead. It’s like starting to wonder: what people will think about Antonin Varenne after reading this interview? Is he spontaneous or a pretentious prick who says Ellroy and McCarthy aren’t that good? If I asked myself the question, I would write and rewrite my answers indefinitely till I turn crazy trying to please every reader. And the only way to do that is to write platitudes. The truth? I’m in the middle of an insomnia, it is dawn and I’m awake since 3 in the morning and my brain runs on its own weird sugar. Probably a good time to start a new book!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Purely business! A biography and engineering piece: Rudolf Diesel, The Man And The Engine!

If Arthur Bowman’s story should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Argh. I’m sure Bowman’s role can seduce lots of actors (strong, broken, heroic, romantic too, on his way to redemption), and I have no doubt lots of them have the talent, but it will take an actor with wide and strong shoulders to do it, because he is carrying a whole world on them, the colonial 19th century, plus all his personal idiosyncrasies!

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Well, I would have a few drinks of any sort with Jack London. Probably, the first few rounds would be friendly, but later in the evening we’d have to discuss why a clever, talented and adventurous human being like him was such a racist pig. Him being a much stronger boxer, it would end up badly for me, but it could as well be the beginning of a real friendship, no?

Thank you once again, Antonin, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with SIMON BECKETT

Simon Beckett Name: SIMON BECKETT

Author of: THE CHEMISTRY OF DEATH (2006)
                      WRITTEN IN BONE (2007)
                      WHISPERS OF THE DEAD (2009)
                      THE CALLING OF THE GRAVE (2010)
                      THE RESTLESS DEAD (2017)

On the web: www.simonbeckett.com

On Twitter: @BeckettSimon

To celebrate the release of Simon Beckett’s fifth Dr David Hunter novel, The Restless Dead, I’m very pleased to welcome Simon to Reader Dad to talk about his books.

Simon Beckett worked as a property repairer, taught English in Spain and played percussion with several bands before becoming a novelist and freelance journalist. The Restless Dead is the fifth novel in the series starring forensic anthropologist, Dr David Hunter.

Thank you, Simon, for taking the time to chat with us.

As a newcomer to the David Hunter books, the first thing that struck me was the mention of his time spent at Tennessee’s infamous Body Farm. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences there, and how it influenced (assuming it did) the development of David Hunter?

I went to the Body Farm in 2002, when I was working full time as a freelance journalist. I’d heard about a research facility in Tennessee that used human cadavers to investigate the process of decomposition, and managed to get a commission to go there from the Daily Telegraph Magazine. They were carrying out a highly realistic training course for US police officers and CSIs, where crime scenes had been staged using real human bodies. One of them was a mock serial-killer scenario and involved excavating corpses that had been buried six months earlier. I thought I was only going to observe but on the last day one of the forensic scientists suggested I should get my hands dirty as well. So, I found myself in protective coveralls, mask, gloves and boots, helping the police officers recover one of the bodies from a woodland grave.

It was a grim but fascinating experience, and even after I’d returned home I couldn’t get what I’d seen out of my mind. Over the next year or so I developed the idea for The Chemistry of Death, the first in what would become my series about David Hunter, a troubled British forensic anthropologist who trained at the Body Farm and now worked in the UK. So my visit there had a very direct influence on both his character and the book itself.

The book necessarily contains a fair amount of technical detail about the process of decomposition. How much research is typically involved in writing one of the David Hunter novels?

The Hunter novels need a lot of research. Obviously, since I’m not a forensic anthropologist a lot of work goes into making David Hunter sound convincing. And as well as the forensic aspects each book involves finding out about a variety of a different subjects, from police procedure to what sort of aquatic scavengers live in salt marshes.

Some information is easily found online, and I’ve acquired a respectable collection of forensic text books I use as starting points. But I’m a great believer in asking real life experts for advice, because they can draw on actual experience and expertise. That gives the books a greater sense of authenticity, so I’m very grateful to these people for helping out.

The actual research itself is only part of it, though. The really hard part comes in trying to incorporate it naturally into a story, without it either sounding dry or taking over. A lot of material never gets used, but that’s better than weighing down the story with pages of factual information, no matter how fascinating it might be.

Geography plays an important part in The Restless Dead: the estuary and the isolated nature of the area driving the story and the nature of the local characters. How important do you feel geography/location is when writing?

The settings of my books are very important, particularly the Hunter series. I try to create a realistic sense of place that’s unique to each story – an isolated region of the Norfolk Broads for The Chemistry of Death, a Hebridean Island for Written in Bone, and so on. A good setting can help create atmosphere and mood, but it’s about more than just creating a backdrop. Until I can clearly picture where a book or scene is set I find it hard to start writing, so being able to visualise these places is crucial.

The majority of settings in my books are fictitious. I’ll generally locate them in a real area, such as Dartmoor, which means I’ll have to do research to make sure I capture the feel of wherever I’m writing about. But rather than restrict myself to describing an actual place, I prefer to create a landscape to fit the story. For me, the main thing is for readers to be able to ‘see’ these places and scenes, so it’s almost as if they’re there themselves. In that respect I treat the settings in the same way as I do my characters. Although they don’t actually exist, I want people to believe they could.

The Restless Dead blog tour bannerConsidering David Hunter’s bleak history, The Restless Dead has something of a surprise ending. What’s next for the forensic anthropologist? Have you planned much in advance, or do you take each book as it comes?

As a rule, I take each one as it comes. I’m usually wary of ‘surprise endings’, unless it’s something that’s been carefully set-up in the narrative. I’m all for twists and shocks – I do my best to try and wrong-foot readers so they don’t know what’s coming. But the seeds of it need to be sown well in advance. If a book throws up something that leaves the reader feeling perplexed or short-changed – especially at the end – then the author hasn’t done their job properly.

For The Restless Dead I had the final scene in my head for a long time, so I was able to construct the story very much with that in mind. And since some events from this book will carry on to the next, I thought it was a good note to end on. Hopefully readers will feel the same way.

As for what’s coming next, I’ve already started the next book and have a good idea where it’s going. But I’m not giving anything away at this stage…

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

When I was younger I was very impressed by American writers like Hemingway and Irwin Shaw, who both could put volumes of nuance and story in the space of a few lines. But I also owe a debt to Raymond Chandler, the creator of Philip Marlowe. He was the first crime writer I read and really opened my eyes to the possibilities a first person narrator.

And as a follow-on, do you have a favourite book, something that you return to on a regular basis?

Probably Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, which saw an older and very different Marlowe from the brash young private eye of The Big Sleep. It’s a very poignant book, with its main character world-weary and vulnerable, but still not beaten. In fact, it’s high time I re-read it again.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Beckett look like?

They tend to vary, depending what stage a book is at. When I’m pushing to finish I’ll work eleven or twelve hours a day and have to force myself to leave my desk. But in general I try to keep to office hours, so I’ll start at around nine in the morning and finish at five or six. I have a small study at home but I do most of my writing in an office about half-an hour away. I enjoy the walk, because it allows me time to clear my head and get into the right frame of mind. There’s a computer there but no internet, so there are no distractions and nothing for me to do but work. It felt very strange at first but now I really appreciate the peace and quiet.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Try to be thick-skinned about criticism and rejections, because you’ll get them. Be disciplined, get the first draft down and then edit your own work to death. And don’t give up.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I have two books on the go at the moment. One is a biography of Irwin Shaw, which is a fascinating if cautionary account of a hugely talented and successful twentieth century writer. The other is The Adjacent, by Christopher Priest. I’ve only just started that (I’ve just finished Lee Child’s Never Go Back) so I can’t say too much. But Priest is a genre-defying writer – I loved The Prestige, which was adapted into a film by Christopher Nolan – so I’m looking forward to it.

If David Hunter and friends should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I don’t have any favoured directors but there are several actors I can see as Hunter. I’m not going to say who they are, though, because I’m careful not to describe Hunter in the books. I’d rather readers form their own image, and if I name an actor it might spoil that.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Oh, I think that would have to be Ernest Hemingway. We’d talk writing and fishing – though not bullfighting – and drink chilled beer in a waterfront bar in Spain. He’d probably be on something stronger, but I know my limitations.

Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with ANGELA SLATTER

angela slatter Name: ANGELA SLATTER

Author of: VIGIL (2016)

On the web: www.angelaslatter.com

On Twitter: @AngelaSlatter

Angela Slatter is an award-winning short story writer with the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and five Aurealis Awards to her name. Vigil is her first novel, introducing the world to Verity Fassbinder and the weird (and, indeed, Weyrd) happenings in Brisbane.

Thank you, Angela, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me on the blog! 🙂

When Vigil opens, we find ourselves introduced to the central character, Verity Fassbinder, as if in passing. There is a sense of a huge and storied history here, only some of which is revealed as the plot proceeds. She is an intriguing character and the reader comes away with the impression that this is not the first of her adventures that she has recounted. Has Verity appeared in your fiction before, or will you be revisiting earlier adventures as the series progresses?

Verity started out in a short story called “Brisneyland by Night”. There’s also a story called “Here Today” that I wrote for a project called The 24-Hour Book for if:book Australia. When I wrote Vigil I incorporated a lot of that first short story into the plot. I feel like there’s still a lot of iceberg underneath as far as her back story is concerned and I hope to get the opportunity to plumb it at some stage! Some more of her family history will come out in Corpselight and Restoration.

With the exception of a kind of super-strength inherited from her Weyrd father, Verity seems relatively normal (or Normal). At heart, the book feels like a hard-boiled detective novel, with Verity playing the role of Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe. How easy was it to find her voice, and did you set out to write urban fantasy with a hint of crime, or crime with a hint of urban fantasy?

I set out to write a short story that was inflected by that hard-boiled/noirish tone … I was at Clarion South and wrote “Brisneyland by Night”, which eventually became the novel Vigil. But I was aware that hard-boiled is done a lot. I mean, a lot. And I wanted to add differences to the story, so what makes the crime different? Add the urban fantasy element, make your antagonists mythical/biblical/fairy-tale, etc. And make your protagonist not someone with nothing in her life, no bitter divorce, hard-drinking, hard-smoking PI, but a fairly practical woman just trying to get on with life and her job. Just trying to balance a normal life with a Weyrd job.

One of the central characters in the novel is the city of Brisbane itself. To most of the Northern Hemisphere, it’s little more than a dot on a map. How did you go about bringing the city to life, and infusing it with the sense of strange that seems to define it within Vigil?

I suppose it’s about thinking on all of the stuff that’s struck me a wonderful or strange or annoying about the city over the years and framing that for someone who doesn’t know the place. Rolling it into a joke (like the stuff about the restaurants closing early − alas, not actually a joke) and presenting it so someone understands what you’re saying, making it relatable. Also, lying! Making things up − like the tunnels under the city. There are some old sewer tunnels around, one of them is in fact preserved in the King George Square Bus Station (the Wheat Creek Culvert), but it’s about imagining more and making your lies convincing and interesting. About presenting the city as a slightly different thing to what it is, showing it the way it might be if all the “what if?” questions were answered!

Blog tour posterThe Weyrd is a mish-mash of different mythologies and legends, but you’ve eschewed the more obvious faeries and goblins for more obscure creatures: sirens with feathers rather than scales, angels and various other creatures of a hundred different underworlds. How much research was involved in the creation of the world and its inhabitants and how did you make sure you kept everything grounded in something resembling reality?

I have always been a huge reader and researcher of mythology and fables, legends, fairy and folk tales, and general weird stuff and I wanted the Weyrd to be a catch-all for that. There’s a lot of information floating around in my head that’s been stashed there for years, and it’s just waiting to be used. I want the Verity stories to have that sense of there is no reigning or privileged mythology, that we are all in this world and we’ve all got our beliefs, but no one path is right or exclusive, that there are all of these mythical creatures pushing up against each other, that the worlds bleed into each other; that we’re all in a crowded elevator together, hoping the cables don’t break.

But I really do need to start my own Weyrd Bestiary to keep things straight in my head. Kathleen Jennings should illustrate it!

You’re currently working on the second book in the series, Corpselight. Can you tell us anything about it, and what we should expect, given the game-changer that closes Vigil?

Hmmmm, difficult to avoid spoilers. Let’s just say that Verity’s got a couple more challenges on the way and a lot of dark secrets from her family’s past − mostly her father’s side − coming back to haunt her. I sort of like having her trying to manage an ordinary life alongside all of these things she just can’t control … a metaphor for existence, I guess.

And do you have a longer-term view of where the story is going, with a definite end-point, or is the plan to take it one book at a time?

I know where the first trilogy arc is going, so yes, that’s all planned. I have a second trilogy very vaguely plotted, but whether that sees the light of day will depend on the success of Vigil, Corpselight and Restoration.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Mary Shelley, Margaret Atwood, Kelly Link, John Connolly, M.R. James, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, Nancy Kress, J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Hambly … I should stop now.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Not really. That’s kind of a non-question for me − I love those books because they’re uniquely someone else’s voice, so if I’d written them they wouldn’t be someone else’s … that’s the appeal of another writer’s fiction, that it is so different from your own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Angela Slatter look like?

I work from home, so it’s easy to get to the office, and because I work from home I need to be very aware of behaving as if I’m in an office. So I start at 8.30am have lunch between 1-2pm, finish work at 5.30pm. Anything after that is a bonus − as my main publishers are in either the US or the UK I tend to deal with their email correspondence late at night.

I check my emails first, prioritise them, then I check over my to-do list and make sure there are no deadlines hurtling towards me … or rather, I check which deadlines are hurtling towards me, and then I prioritise tasks for the day. At the moment, I’m doing the edits on the sequel to Vigil, Corpselight, and finishing up the plotting framework for the third book in the series, Restoration; I’ve got two short stories due by the end of July; the Vigil launch is happening on 19 July so preparing for that; waiting on proofs of a new UK collection; editing the third and final Sourdough book; plotting a series of three novellas to pitch somewhere … those are the top priorities. I’m heading to the UK in August for Nine Worlds, a gig in Newcastle at Novocastria Macabre with Robert Shearman, and the inaugural Dublin Ghost Story Festival, so I need to get a lot of things out of the way before travelling.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My standard reply to that is:

· Keep writing.

· Learn your craft and never, ever think you know it all.

· Develop a thick skin, but realise that story criticism is aimed at making the story better, not at making you feel bad about yourself. Find people whose opinions you respect and trust.

· Remember: it’s always better to have someone find problems with a story before you send it out into the world.

· Networking is about building mutually beneficial relationships with other writers and publishers, not just about you getting what you can.

· Don’t send Facebook friend requests to other writers and then ask them to like your page and buy your book: (a) it’s just rude, and (b) other writers are not generally your audience. That’s my personal bugbear!

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I am reading Stephen Gallagher’s Kingdom of Bones, Barbara Hambly’s Those Who Hunt The Night (again, it’s a frequent comfort re-read), Kameron Hurley’s The Geek Feminist Revolution, and in the queue I’ve got China Miéville’s The Census Taker, Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown, Rjurick Davidson’s The Stars Askew, and Jeffrey Ford’s A Natural History of Hell.

If Vigil, or indeed, the Verity Fassbinder series as a whole, should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

There are a lot of these questions about, and I suppose in today’s world it’s a natural kind of correlation − once it was just a dream you kept to yourself, nowadays it’s an actual slim possibility. I still don’t know about Verity and have been wracking my brain on that one. You need a mostly Australian cast to make it work properly. For my sirens, I’d love Elizabeth Debicki as Serena, Cate Blanchett as Eurycleia, Robyn Nevin as Ligeia. Chris Hemsworth might well work for Tobit (must have hair dyed), Stellan Skarsgård as Ziggi, and I’m still tossing up between Michael Fassbender or Eric Bana for Bela. Oh, and the Norns … must think about that …

Actually, wait, wait. The hivemind has suggested Sarah Snook as Verity. She’s a very good candidate!

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Haha! Angela Carter. I think she would probably drink tea. I would go for coffee. We might look at each other with vague disapproval until we realised we should probably just have a whiskey and all would be well.

Thank you once again, Angela, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

You’re more than welcome!

An Interview with MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

blakstad Name: MATTHEW BLAKSTAD

Author of: SOCKPUPPET (2016)

On the web: www.matthewblakstad.com

On Twitter: @mattblak

Matthew Blakstad’s first career was as a professional child actor. From the age of ten, he had roles in TV dramas on the BBC and ITV, in films and at theatres including the Royal Court. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, he began a career in online communications, consulting for a range of clients from the BBC to major banks. Since 2008, he has been in public service, using his communication skills to help people understand and manage their money.

He is a graduate of the Faber Academy Writing a Novel course and a member of the Crime Writers Association and The Prime Writers.

Thank you, Matthew, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure!

The central storyline of Sockpuppet might have been ripped from the headlines: the theft of personal data; incompetence and cover-your-ass mentality of government organisations. Let’s talk about the book’s origins – what was the seed, and did the finished product in any way resemble your original vision?

It’s true – life has been showing a worrying tendency to replicate events from my book. Microsoft’s chatbots going rogue, the government launching its digital ID service – even a political scandal called #piggate! Of course a lot of that is just fluke but I think it also reflects the fact that Sockpuppet is based on a lot of research. The scandal that engulfs my government minister, Bethany Lehrer, is based on any number of recent examples.

But the roots of the book go a lot further back for me. Its earliest incarnation came in 2001, when I tried to write a novel about the dot com crash. But like many newbie writers, I was trying too hard to put across all my (I thought) brilliant ideas. Good novels don‘t start that way. They begin and end with character and conflict. So that first book was pretty bad and it’s now consigned to a drawer. Still, elements of it have found their way into Sockpuppet – not least one of the central characters, maverick hacker Dani Farr.

The idea for Sockpuppet proper came some years later, when I heard about a friend of a friend who was trying to build himself a fake identity, by leaving a false data trail across websites, phone records and credit card transactions. I was fascinated by this idea of carving out a new identity from data alone; and that became the seed of the novel. The story fell into place very quickly after that. Although I’ve honed and tightened it a lot since that first draft, it was already pretty much the book it is today.

The book deals very heavily with the concept of “identity”, both on the macroscopic scale – the theft of personal data of millions of people – and on the microscopic, or more personal, level – Dani Farr’s media gauntlet and the many different versions of her that seem to exist – and also dabbles with the concept of machine intelligence, programmed “personalities” designed to beat the Turing Test. It’s a storyline based on solid fact and you’ve built a lot of detail into the narrative. Tell us about your research approach: where did you start? Did the story evolve as you found more information?

My research process is pretty simple: I read voraciously and I talk to lots of people who know more about the subject than I do. I’m a bit of a magpie, picking up information here, there and everywhere. When you’re writing about contemporary tech, you can’t only rely on books, because they’re produced on a time lag of at least a year and the information in them stales quickly; so I glean a lot from blogs and other online sources. To research the social media milieu of Sockpuppet I spent way too much time on Reddit.

While I’m fossicking around like this, I start to jot down little prose sketches – images, snatches of scenes. Gradually, characters and scenes grow out of these. When I’m ready, I sit down and hammer out an outline, including character pen portraits and a plot summary. Then I dive into a first draft.

The research process doesn’t stop there, though. I like to break a cardinal rule of fiction writing, by continuing to do research through most of the writing process. The received wisdom says you should completely finish your research, let it percolate inside you a while, and only then start to write. That doesn’t work for me. Partly this is because I’m writing about things that are in constant flux, but it also reflects my approach to writing. For me the first few drafts are a process of constant enquiry. Little pieces of a puzzle keep falling into place as I ask myself, What if this happened? How does that work? What would this character do in this situation? And these questions inevitably lead to more research.

As an extension to that: your writing, much like that of Neal Stephenson, is a combination of narrative (often filled with black humour) and technical detail. How do you approach the story to ensure the balance is right: enough detail to satisfy readers who know what you’re talking about, but not so much that it turns into a lecture and sends the more “casual” reader to sleep?

You won’t be surprised to hear that I greatly admire Stephenson’s writing. Far more than me, he has the mind-set of an engineer, as do his characters. He often goes on for page after page of delicious geeky riffs, as his brilliant characters go about solving seemingly impossible technical challenges. He really understands tech and his passion for communicating about it is one of the great pleasures of reading his work.

My motivation is a little different. I think I’m more interested in the interior, rather than the active dimension. When I look at the world today, so much of people’s time and emotional energy are committed to interacting with, and through, devices. Our sense of identity and our place in the world are constructed in large part on-screen. This is something fiction should be responding to, and interpreting back to us. That’s what art is for. But I don’t always see this happening in a lot of ‘serious’ fiction. Of course that’s much less true of genre fiction, but the stuff at the front of the bookshop often ignores tech completely, apart from the occasional clumsy use of Facebook messaging. (There is of course a whole other discussion to be had about why genre fiction isn’t in the front of the bookshop, but let’s not go there now.) I think many writers see tech as an unfit subject for the creative imagination.

So to answer your question, I wanted to find a way to write engagingly, and well, about technology and techies. I tried to give Sockpuppet a language and a voice that incorporates the distinctive modes of speech and patterns of thought associated with technology. And it’s hard to write about this stuff without becoming dry and cold. You need to find ways of reflecting the rich emotional experiences people have online. The character of Dani really helped me find a way into this. Her online experience is, I hope, every bit as rich and dark and complex as that of a romantic hero striding across a moorland.

But I didn’t want the book to appeal only to people who already understand the digital world. So a lot of the story is seen through the eyes of Bethany, who is older and to a large extent turned off by tech, even though she’s the government minister responsible for it. She describes herself as not so much a digital native, more a ‘digital shipwreck’. Part of my intent in writing her character was to create a route into the world of the book for people who feel a bit like Bethany, when they see how their endlessly SnapChatting children have taken to these machines since birth.

One of the gratifying things about early responses to the book is that non-technical people have found the book as engaging and revealing as those at the nerdier end of the scale. I get a lot of people saying, ‘I read your book and now I want to delete all my online accounts and live in a bunker.’ So I guess that’s a win.

Sockpuppet is the first book in the Elyse Martingale Cycle. Martingale herself appears only briefly in the story, in the form of flashbacks, though her book The Electronic Radical, informs much of the story’s philosophy. I’m intrigued as to how you can build a cycle of books around a character who no longer exists – are we likely to see books set in earlier time periods, or will Elyse Martingale continue to influence events from beyond the grave?

The character of Elyse Martingale was a twentieth century computer pioneer and political radical. She died in the 90s so her presence in Sockpuppet is through the long shadow she’s cast over the techies and protestors who inhabit the book. But yes, I do intend to take the Cycle back in time as well as forward – to tell stories set in Elyse’s own lifetime. I have the whole Cycle mapped out at a high level, including two Elyse stories, though no doubt the plan will evolve as I go along.

The idea is that each book will stand alone, and that they can be read in any order – but the more of them you read, the more they’ll stitch together an alternative history of technology and protest.

Looking to the future, do you have a definitive end-point for the Cycle, or are you taking it a book at a time? Are we likely to see the characters at the centre of Sockpuppet – both real and not-real – in future instalments?

Sockpuppet is book one in the Cycle, and we’ve already put out a short e-novella called Fallen Angel, which is book zero. This takes place in the dot-com boom – around the turn of the millennium – and it contains some important prehistory to Sockpuppet. I’m now working on a near-future sequel to Sockpuppet (book two) and I’ve already written most of a story set in the late 60’s, among the futurists and early hackers of that time (which will probably be book minus one). Beyond that I have one more book planned, which is set in the late 1940’s, plus a short story set in the future – but I’m keeping my options open about future titles!

Along with Elyse Martingale herself, the books share a number of recurring characters, family connections and overlapping plot elements. The tech entrepreneur Sean Perce, for instance, appears in both Sockpuppet and Fallen Angel; and a number of other characters from both books will appear in other stories. I hope the reader may find that their feelings about a character based on their appearance in one book are challenged when they re-encounter them in another.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

We’ve already touched on Neal Stephenson. Along with him, I love William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Phillip K Dick – the usual suspects! These are some of the more direct influences on my style and subject matter – but I’m a really eclectic reader, so I’ve absorbed elements from a pretty diverse pool of writers. I read a lot of modern American literature, including David Foster Wallace, Marilynne Robinson, Jonathan Lethem, Paul Auster, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Dave Eggers…I could go on! A lot of these writers share a distinctly North American way of absorbing and processing popular culture within a literary mode of writing. That’s something I can definitely see reflected in my own style.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’m always terrible at these types of questions. I can never remember that single book or movie that’s the perfect example of something or other. I’m sure the perfect answer will pop into my brain the second this interview goes live. But I think for now I’ll say, Paul Auster’s novella City of Glass, which is the first part of his New York Trilogy. This is the book I’ve reread most over the years; and it still blows my mind each time, in its concision, its downright weirdness, and the way it repurposes the hardboiled detective story to mind-bending effect. It’s like a Philip K Dick Novel written by Camus.

There’s also a brilliant comic book adaptation of it by David Mazzucchelli, which like all good adaptations is a distinct work of art in its own right. Both are highly recommended.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Matthew Blakstad look like?

As well as being a novelist I have a Monday-to-Thursday day job, so a lot of my writing is done in brief snatches – in cafés, on the bus to work – whenever I can grab the time. I’m lucky that I’m able to keep working on a book in the back of my mind while I’m going about my busy day-to-day existence. So time spent actually sitting at the keyboard is something of a luxury – and it’s always productive. When I sit down on a Friday or weekend morning to do a full day’s writing, I feel like the words are already waiting in my fingers, primed and ready to type. I often find the day has suddenly turned into evening, and I’m sitting with sore eyes and ever sorer shoulders, wondering where the hell the past eight hours went. I suspect if I was a full-time writer I’d struggle much more with the glare of the blank sheet of paper, but the way things are, that’s never been a problem.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write. And keep on writing. I wish there was a short cut but there isn’t. As I’ve already said, I sweated over a first failed attempt at a novel, and I’m really glad I did. It was a ladder I had to climb before throwing it away, on my way to writing a better novel. You need to get a lot of bad writing out of your system before the good writing comes. And of course I’m still learning.

Another key to becoming a good writer is to first become a good reader. Critiquing other people’s work develops your ‘ear’ for good and bad prose, and the more you do this, the easier it becomes to see the flaws in your own work. A great way to make this happen is to join a writer’s group, where everyone submits a passage of their work every few weeks and gets feedback from the others. This peer review approach is a big part of how writing courses like Faber Academy work. I did a FA course, and it was a real turning point. This was a few years back now, but seven or eight people from my class still meet every month and review each other’s work. They’re still the first people to read my stuff and I trust them implicitly because we’ve all exposed our worst and best to each other along the way. It’s invaluable.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

Both! As part of my research for Martingale book 2, I’m reading The Boy Who Could Change the World, a collection of writings by Aaron Swartz, the digital activist who died tragically young and was appallingly treated by the US authorities. I don’t want to myth-make about a young man who was taken too soon but the truth is, he was a brilliant mind and a terrible loss.

I’ve also just started Our Endless Numbered Days by my fellow Prime Writer [LINK: https://theprimewriters.com], Claire Fuller. I can’t believe I’ve left it so long to read this one. It’s extraordinary – beautiful and dark, with a brilliantly twisted take on the survivalist post-apocalyptic narrative.

If Sockpuppet should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

That’s hard! I used to be a professional actor myself when I was a kid, but I’d make a terrible casting director. Still, since you ask, here’s an all-Game-of-Thrones cast list that’s for some reason just popped into my head:

Gemma Whelan, who plays Yara Greyjoy, would be amazing as the ballsy, shoot-from-the-hip Dani. Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark) could carry off Bethany’s patrician manner – and lace it with just the right dose of vulnerability. To complete the set, Sean Bean could play his bullish Burnely namesake Sean Perce. (He’s a bit old but I’m sure with a slap of foundation he could pull it off.)

In terms of directors, Joe Cornish of Attack the Block fame gave the book a lovely quote for the cover, so he’d definitely have first refusal. He’d do amazing things with it.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

In my experience, genre writers are definitely the most fun. Especially in the bar at two in the morning. If I had to pick just one I’d probably go for Neil Gaiman because you could talk to him about literally anything and he’d have something fascinating and unexpected take on the subject. For drinks, I imagine he’d be happy with some fine craft ale or other. I know I would. But if he insisted on drinking, I don’t know, faerie mead or some such, then I’d be game.

Thank you once again, Matthew, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

An Interview with ZEN CHO

str2_shgzencho_sharmilla_12 FOR ONLINE Name: ZEN CHO

Author of: SORCERER TO THE CROWN (2015)

On the web: zencho.org

On Twitter: @zenaldehyde

Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer of SFF and romance. She was born and raised in Selangor, read law at Cambridge, and currently lives in London. Her debut historical fantasy Sorcerer to the Crown is out now in the UK, published by Pan Macmillan.

Thank you, Zen, for taking the time to chat with us.

Thanks for having me!

Sorcerer to the Crown is garnering lots of favourable reviews, and has been compared to everything from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to the work of Terry Pratchett. The obvious question to start us off, then, is: what or who were the influences for Sorcerer and how far from the original idea is the finished book?

You’ve named two big influences on me! Terry Pratchett’s books taught me that writing could be serious and smart while also being funny and silly. And I love Susanna Clarke’s writing – it’s so erudite and elegant. I don’t know that Sorcerer to the Crown is anything like their stuff, but I’m certainly a huge fan of both of them.

I did write Sorcerer in conversation with other books, though, and the direct influences are actually P. G. Wodehouse, with his absurd young gentlemen, and Heyer’s frothy romances.

A lot of the basic elements of the original idea have survived into the finished book, but I spent more than a year revising Sorcerer to the Crown and it certainly looks very different from the first draft. One of the biggest differences is that Prunella Gentleman, who’s one of the two main characters, became much more central. In earlier drafts you saw her from the outside, but she became much more of a co-protagonist in revisions.

A fun and magical “Regency Romp” it might be, but Sorcerer also has a very serious side that is as relevant today as it was in the book’s setting. The novel examines, in some depth, the question prejudice, both the racism directed at the book’s two main characters, and the sexism aimed at Prunella and the other women with magical abilities. One of the main criticisms aimed at SFF works is the lack of diversity, and you have gone almost to the opposite extreme. How important were these themes to you when you were writing the book, and did you encounter any difficulties in finding the right balance between story and “lecture” (which, to my mind, you have managed perfectly)?

Good, I’m glad it didn’t feel too much like a lecture! That was actually one of my main challenges when writing the book: I wanted it to be fun, but I had these quite serious ideas I was interested in exploring as well, and it was a hard line to walk. I didn’t go into the project saying, "I’m going to write the most diverse book ever" – there’s lots of axes of diversity it doesn’t address. But these themes were my entry-point for the story. From the very outset I wanted it to be about a black man in Regency London and about an irrepressible female magician in a society that disapproved of female magic, and once you make those decisions the rest of the story unfolds from there.

There is a beauty to the language you use in the book, a very formal English that you manage to maintain for the duration of the story. What sort of research did you need to do to find the right voice, the right sentence structure to ensure the story fit into the Regency setting?

I did a lot of research on Regency England because I wanted the world to feel convincing and complete. So I made these lists of what they would have worn and what they would have eaten and so on, so I could make references to them that would flesh out the setting. When it comes to the language, I’ve always enjoyed the Regency "voice" – several of my favourite authors have that voice, whether it’s an assumed voice or just their actual voice, like Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Georgette Heyer and so on. Getting to play with that voice was one of the main attractions of writing a novel set in Regency London. I read a lot of books written during and set in that period, including diaries and letters as well as fiction – I love reading people’s correspondence so it was a great excuse.

And speaking of research: you have created a detailed magical world, both in England and in Fairyland. Was there much research involved in getting the details right: the structure of the Society, for example, or the different creatures that inhabit the magical realm of fairy?

The structure of the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers was built piecemeal in response to what the plot required, but of course it’s supposed to sound a bit like the actual Royal Society. I have no idea how similar it is to the real Royal Societies and how they’re structured, but it’s to be expected that thaumaturges will do things a little differently …

With the different creatures in Fairy, I’m quite nerdy about supernatural beings and magical creatures and because of my cultural background I’m aware of lots of different sorts. I included magical creatures from different cultures because I wanted the world to feel convincingly like ours – large and full of different types of people and things and stories.

Sorcerer to the Crown is the first in a proposed series. Can you talk about where the story will take us next, what is likely to become of Zacharias and Prunella?

Book 2 is very much a work in progress so even I don’t entirely know where it will end up! I can say that Zacharias and Prunella will make a reappearance, along with a few other familiar faces, but the story will also follow the adventures of a couple of new characters. There’s a couple of explosions and there will be at least one mistaken elopement.

Beyond the scope of Sorcerer, what authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I’m influenced by the authors, primarily British, I read as a child – so Edith Nesbit, Diana Wynne Jones and the like. More recently I’ve been inspired by other Commonwealth writers – the historical adventure novels of Amitav Ghosh, for example, and the elegant science fiction of Karen Lord.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I’d like to write a book that is like Stella Benson’s Living Alone. It’s quite an obscure novel about a witch in London during the Great War. It’s very sad and funny and whimsical, and just on the right side of twee (in my opinion). My version would probably be less sad and more Asian.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Zen Cho look like?

I wake up at 9-10 am and have a look at what’s going on on social media over coffee and breakfast. After some futzing around I settle down to writing. When I’m actively drafting a novel (as distinct from planning and outlining or revising) I have a daily wordcount I’ll be aiming for and I use a Pomodoro app to help me keep on track – you write for 25 minutes, take a break, then go for another 25 minutes, etc. That’s my main job of the day, but I’ll also take time out from fiction writing to deal with what I think of as the "busy work" – dealing with emails, writing blog posts, updating my website and so on. I usually also check my day job emails at least once a day to make sure nothing’s on fire at the office. Because I take breaks throughout the day I usually work into the evening.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Keep going, enjoy writing for its own sake, and don’t worry about the externals too much. Do it regularly. Don’t be afraid of failure.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading The Letters of Abigaill Levy Franks, 1733-1748, which is sort of for business. For pleasure I’m reading a novel called Miss Marjoribanks by Margaret Oliphant, which is about a capable young woman who overhauls the society of a small Victorian town.

If Sorcerer to the Crown should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Not really! People have proposed fantasy casting for Prunella and Zacharias to me, but I don’t watch much TV or film so it’s not something I’ve thought about myself. I secretly think it’d make a better BBC miniseries than Hollywood movie, but I guess that’s already been done with Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell …

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

It would have been nice to have had the chance to meet Diana Wynne Jones. I love her work. If we imagine it happening at a con bar I’d probably have a gin or tonic. I don’t know what tipple she would have gone for!

Thank you once again, Zen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks for the questions!

An Interview with OWEN LAUKKANEN

OwenLaukkanen Name: OWEN LAUKKANEN

Author of: THE PROFESSIONALS (2014)
                 CRIMINAL ENTERPRISE (2014)
                 KILL FEE (2015)
                 THE STOLEN ONES (Forthcoming, May 2015)

Owen Laukkanen graduated from the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing program before spending three years as a reporter in the world of professional poker. He lives in Vancouver, where he writes the successful Stevens and Windermere series.

Thank you, Owen, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure! Thanks very much for having me.

The Stevens and Windermere books are set in and around Minnesota’s Twin Cities. It seems an odd location, not as instantly-recognisable as, say, New York or Los Angeles, especially to us non-Americans. What’s the logic behind the setting and why choose it over those other places, or even your native Vancouver?

There’s kind of a funny story about how the books came to be set in Minnesota, which was not something I’d planned to do. I’d spent very little time in the Twin Cities before I wrote The Professionals, so I was really unprepared to have to go back and set a series there.

I’m one of those writers who doesn’t think before he types, which is to say, I like to start with a character and a crime and let the story unfold as it wants to. The Professionals is about a group of nomadic kidnappers, and I started the book somewhat arbitrarily in Chicago.

Being nomadic, they needed somewhere to go from the Windy City, and I (again, pretty arbitrarily), sent them north to Minnesota, whereupon I needed some law enforcement to act as foils for the group, and voila, in came Stevens and Windermere.

I’d really intended for the kidnappers to be the main characters of the book, and it wasn’t until the book was finished that my American publisher broached the idea of creating a series around Stevens and Windermere, and I found myself suddenly having to do a lot of research about the Twin Cities as I prepared to write the second, and later books.

That said, I feel pretty lucky to have happened into this Minnesota locale, as it gives me plenty of excuses to visit Minneapolis and Saint Paul, both of which are wonderful. And the state as a whole is a lot like Canada, where I’m from, so it’s not an entirely alien place to be writing about.

As far as setting a book in Vancouver, or anywhere in Canada, I confess to being a little bit of a mercenary. Put plain, books set in Canada don’t seem to sell very well, internationally or at home. There’s a notion that in order to succeed in Canada as an artist, you have to be seen to have succeeded in America, and I wanted to reach as wide a readership as I could.

I’ve spent enough time in the United States that I feel I can write about it credibly, but I do sometimes think wistfully about setting something in Vancouver, which is certainly rife with its own criminal possibilities.

In the early books of the series, at least, Kirk and Carla aren’t your average police procedural partners, given that they work for different agencies (Stevens for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Windermere for the FBI). The job titles inform a lot of the dynamics between the pair. How did the relationship develop as you began writing the series, and did you have a specific goal in separating the pair?

Essentially, the relationship developed out of jurisdictional necessity. Stevens is a state policeman, and I imagined that he would be the first agent called to deal with The Professionals’ band of kidnappers, but I knew he would need FBI help.

As I said, I initially intended for the pair to act as foils for my criminal protagonists, so I didn’t give very much thought to their relationship at first. In fact, I think Windermere is a little one-dimensional in the first book, as I figured she would be more of a plot device than a main character.

It was really a lot of fun to go back and explore their relationship, and especially Windermere as a character, in the second book, Criminal Enterprise, though obviously it’s difficult to keep coming up with reasons that an FBI agent and a state policeman would work together on multiple cases. I think I’ve come up with a workable long-term solution by now, but it’s been something of a challenge to keep them together without straining credibility too much.

Speaking of dynamics: the sexual tension between this pair is palpable from the outset; despite this, the relationship remains (reasonably) professional throughout. Do you feel that the sexual tension is necessary, or important, in helping you develop the characters?

That’s a good question, and it’s certainly something that readers seem to have strong feelings about, one way or the other! I think the sexual tension served a purpose, especially in the early books, as it helped to flesh out the characters and give them lives outside of the investigation they were conducting.

Obviously, characters are more interesting to read about when they’re fully realized and have relatable wants and needs, and I think it’s easier to make a bad guy into a compelling character, simply by virtue of their reasons for committing crimes. I wanted to give the reader a reason to tune into the police chapters, too, and sexual tension seemed like a pretty straightforward way of making them interesting.

That said, readers do tend to take sides, and I’ve received more than a few emails asking when Stevens and Windermere will finally hook up, or begging me to cut the tension out entirely so Stevens can focus on his wife. I think as the series moves on and the characters grow and develop a bit more, the romantic element might wax and wane, but I do think it’s been useful.

You’ve written (or, at the very least, published here in the UK) the first four books of the Stevens and Windermere series in fairly rapid succession. Do you have plans for future volumes in the series, or any plans to write non-series books?

I do! At present, I’m revising the fifth book in the series, which will come out in North America in 2016, and I’m under contract for a sixth book as well. The fifth one is quite dark; the series seems to be getting darker as I go, but I think it might be the best book of the lot.

And I actually have a young adult novel coming out under a pen name very soon! It’s called HOW TO WIN AT HIGH SCHOOL and is written by “Owen Matthews,” and comes out in North America on March 3rd. I have no big plans to jump ship to the YA side of things completely, but it was really fun to work on something completely different. It’s actually the first novel I ever wrote, when I was about nineteen or twenty, and I kept it in the proverbial drawer for a decade or so before dusting it off and realizing it wasn’t as embarrassing as I might have feared.

My real dream, though, is to write a series of nautical adventure novels, and I’m tinkering with the first one right now, though finding time has been difficult with the Stevens and Windermere series, and this YA novel.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I remember reading John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row in high school and really admiring the language and the imagery it evoked, and wishing I could create something so vivid and alive. I think that’s the book that first made me want to be a writer.

I probably tend to hew closer to the James Ellroy and Elmore Leonard models, with their short, punchy sentences and minimal description. Bret Easton Ellis is another writer whose minimalist style I admire, though I find the content kind of hit-or-miss.

And I was lucky enough to have one of my all-time favourite authors, a Cherokee-Canadian writer named Thomas King, as a creative writing professor in university. He’s probably been the most influential, just as far as the technical aspect of writing is concerned. He taught me how to look critically at my own work and to cut, cut, cut anything that doesn’t serve the story, which is invaluable knowledge for any writer.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I find that the writers I admire most are those who can seemingly pull beautiful, evocative, lyrical sentences out of thin air. I’m not one for much description in my writing, in part because whenever I try to wax rhapsodic about anything, it comes off as purple and overwrought.

But I really envy writers like Michael Chabon, Raymond Chandler, Patrick DeWitt and Amor Towles (among many, many others) for the beauty of their prose, where my own work, in comparison, serves a rather more workmanlike function.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Owen Laukkanen look like?

Typically, a day in my life involves a lot of procrastination! I work five days a week, Monday through Friday, and I try to get about five thousand words written each day, which allows me to get a first draft of a novel hammered out in about four to six weeks. Mind, they’re not particularly good words, but at the very least, I get a draft out and then can settle into the more difficult task of editing my pile of words into something resembling a novel.

Last September, my girlfriend and I adopted a puppy, a year-old rescue pitbull named Lucy, and as my girlfriend works a normal job, it usually falls to me to keep the puppy occupied. So I take the dog for a long walk along the ocean in the morning, and in the afternoon, I write while the dog sleeps it off. If I time it right, I can get the five thousand words in before the dog wakes up and demands her evening walk.

That said, I do find it a little tough writing when there’s a giant mass of sleeping dog cuddled up against me, or better yet, wanting to play. I generally can’t resist her, so the writing is coming a little slower as of late!

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

My main advice is to finish the damn draft. In my experience, there are a lot of aspiring writers out there who spend their time tinkering with the first ten chapters of their novel, but whose desire to get the beginning perfect prevents them from actually finishing the thing.

I’m a huge advocate of giving yourself permission to write an absolutely horrible first draft, because then at the very least you have a novel with a beginning, middle and end, and you can then set about revising it into something publishable. But if you’re stuck with the first thirty pages of something, no matter how beautifully written, you’ll never get your book published. So my main piece of advice is to write a first draft, no matter how awful.

My second piece of advice is to learn how to edit your own work as critically as you would your worst enemy’s, and to pick out and cut anything extraneous from your text. This often requires a lot of holding one’s nose, as it’s painful to cut out wonderfully written passages that do absolutely nothing to further your plot, but the sooner you learn to do this, the better.

If you can identify the flaws in your own work and learn to correct them, you’re miles ahead of the game.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading a novel called Where All Light Tends To Go, by an American author named David Joy. It’s partly for business and partly for pleasure, as he and I share an American publisher and will be doing a couple of events together when The Stolen Ones, my fourth, comes out in March.

The publisher sent me a galley of his book, and so far it’s really good, unflinching rural noir. I’d have read the book even if I’d have had to pay for it, so I’m doubly lucky.

If the Stevens and Windermere should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

Oh man, this is a question I’ve been asked a fair bit, and I never have any good answers for it. I like Aisha Tyler (from Archer) or Zoe Saldana for Windermere, but for Stevens, I’m lost. As for directors, The Professionals was influenced to a pretty major extent by Michael Mann’s Heat, and I would go nuts if he ever got his hands on a Professionals script.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Oh, good question, and impossible to narrow down. I’d like to have a beer with John Steinbeck, preferably on the docks in Monterey, and since my tastes skew to the nautical, I also wouldn’t pass up a drink with Herman Melville or Joseph Conrad, either.

I also confess a weakness for, ahem, British theatre of the late 19th century, so I would happily drink with Oscar Wilde and/or George Bernard Shaw, as well. In all of the above instances, the drink would be alcoholic, and my contribution to the discussion would mostly be my attempting to avoid saying anything foolish, which actually sums up most of my interactions with other people, be they literary titans or otherwise.

Thank you once again, Owen, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Thanks again for having me! This was a lot of fun.

An Interview with STEVE CAVANAGH

stephen_mearns_2 Name: STEVE CAVANAGH

Author of: THE DEFENCE (2015)

On the web: stevecavanagh.com

On Twitter: @SSCav

Steve Cavanagh was born and raised in Belfast, where he currently works as a practicing solicitor in the field of civil rights law. The Defence is his first novel.

Thank you, Steve, for taking the time to chat with us.

No problem, it’s my pleasure.

Modern Irish crime writers seem to take one of two routes: they write about Ireland and all the baggage that comes with it, or they take their fiction on the road. Eddie Flynn is a New York-based lawyer. Was there any sort of decision-making process around whether you should write Irish crime fiction and, if so, why did you choose the American route?

There are a few reasons I chose to base the book in the US. One thing that stands out to me is that I’m mainly influenced by American crime writers and books set in the US. Michael Connelly is a major influence and I would’ve read mostly US based fiction – although in recent years there has been more of a balance between US, UK and Irish fiction. The other major factor was that I wanted to write a legal thriller and that creates its own difficulties if you set that book in Northern Ireland. Largely because we have a dual system of representation; if you find yourself in court you will have a solicitor and a barrister representing you. The solicitor does most of the early court appearances and prepares the case for trial and the barrister performs the role of the trial advocate. At the time I didn’t feel confident about creating two lead characters – particularly when one character, the barrister, would inevitably be the one doing all the cool courtroom scenes. It didn’t seem balanced to me. So I felt setting the book in the US solved that problem as attorneys in America perform both roles and I could concentrate on a single lead character to focus the story.

Your short story “The Grey” was included in the recent Belfast Noir anthology, so you obviously have no qualms about writing fiction set in your native city. Do you see yourself producing anything novel-sized in the future?

I might well do, but not at the moment. I’m very pleased to have that short story in the anthology, and it was fun to write, but I’m not sure about a full length novel set in Belfast. Part of the reason I wrote The Defence was to have a little escape from the day job of being a lawyer. I do some work in the criminal courts so murder and mayhem in Belfast is still my 9 – 5 and I didn’t particularly want to come home and write about it at night. Maybe if I ever become a full time writer I’ll consider it. I do have an idea for a Belfast based character but at the moment I’m not sure if that story would be best told in a novel or on the screen.

The Defence puts us firmly in the head of Eddie Flynn, a con-man turned lawyer, which gives him a somewhat unique perspective on how the law works. How much research did you find yourself doing to get the detail – both of setting and of American judicial procedures, etc. – right?

I can tell you there was a tonne of research done into the legal procedures and virtually none of it made it into the book. I have textbooks on US criminal procedures, I’ve been taught by American lawyers and I strive to get it right but not let it interrupt the flow of the story. In terms of the setting, I also did a lot of research into New York City, and ultimately I took the Ed McBain approach and decided that some of the locations should be fictionalised, the courthouse in particular. There was a courthouse on Chambers Street, but it’s now the department of Education’s head office. I took that courthouse and made it bigger and more grand for the book. I wanted the reader to get a sense of New York, so again a lot of research and not much made it onto the page, but I felt as though I was informed enough to write about it. The other great advantage to setting your book in New York is that the reader already has a strong mental image of that city already, even if they’ve never been there.

What’s next for Eddie? There’s always an assumption with this kind of character that they’re a series character. Is this the case with Eddie, or have you set your sights elsewhere for your second novel?

No mistake about it, I’m writing a series. Eddie is such a fascinating character, to me at least, that for the moment all I want to do is write about him. That may change down the line, of course. I’ve always loved series characters and I envisaged this as a series from the very first book. The second book in the series has the working title – The Plea. It’s a much more complex book, but it hopefully retains the key ingredients from The Defence.

When it comes to thrillers, there is always a sense that the protagonist comes out the far end somewhat the worse for wear, almost as if the authors have a sadistic streak that needs to be satiated. Eddie joins a long and prestigious line of leading men who go through a lot of pain in order to entertain the reader (between beatings and night-time jaunts around high ledges). What’s the attraction, and do you ever feel sorry for the character even as you’re twisting the knife?

I do feel sorry for Eddie, and I don’t. All the stories that I love have characters facing real adversity and eventually coming through on the other side as the victor. Everyone loves an underdog – that’s why Rocky, Ruby, John McClane etc are such beloved characters. Plus I enjoy the challenge – when I put Eddie in a terrible situation I’m often not sure how or if he’s going to get out of it. It’s fun figuring out the problems through him.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Michael Connelly, John Connolly, Lee Child, Jeffrey Deaver, John Grisham, John Mortimer, the poet Robert Service, Brendan Behan…quite a big list. Too many to name.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

A lot more than one – The Black Echo (Michael Connelly) Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris) Every Dead Thing (John Connolly). Yeah, imagine you’ve just written the Silence of the Lambs – damn.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Steve Cavanagh look like?

Well none of it happens during the day. I’m usually up around 6.30am to help get the kids ready for school, I go to work, come home around 6.30pm, eat, see my family, and the writing day begins around 10pm. I write until I fall asleep, which can sometimes mean I get four hours of writing done or four minutes.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write the book you want to read – polish the hell out of it – send it to a handful of agents at a time and believe in yourself. If you get rejections, which you will, just move on to the next agent as a rejection often tells you absolutely nothing about the quality of your book.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m about to start CJ Sansom’s Lamentation, then I’ve got a couple of Reacher’s to catch up on.

If The Defence should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’m a big Christopher McQuarrie fan, and if he wanted to direct I’d have him in a heartbeat. As for lead actors – I have a notion that Ryan Gosling would be a good Eddie Flynn, but I don’t know why. I don’t have a solid view of any actor for Eddie, really. Any good actor would be fine, just as long as it’s not Randy Quaid I’d be quite happy.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Spike Milligan. I wouldn’t say a word, I’d just listen to him. He didn’t drink alcohol so some tea would be just fine.

Thank you once again, Steve, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

It’s been an honour.

An Interview with KARIM MISKÉ

karim-miske Name: KARIM MISKÉ

Author of: ARAB JAZZ (2015)

On the web: karimmiske.com

On Twitter: @KarimMiske

Karim Miské is a documentary-maker, restaurateur and television script-writer who lives and works in Paris. Arab Jazz is his first novel.

Thank you, Karim, for taking the time to chat with us.

The title of your novel is a riff on James Ellroy’s White Jazz. Are you a fan of Ellroy’s work and, if so, to what extent has he influenced the direction of your own writing?

In my opinion, James Ellroy is one of the best writers of our time, in terms of stories, style, rhythm, characters. If you want to understand something of contemporary American history, the L.A. Quartet and Underworld U.S.A. are must-reads. Ellroy’s work has inspired me because, one way or another, it’s always about race and war. That’s what I wanted to talk about too. For a long time, I didn’t really know why I was so keen to name my book Arab Jazz. Then one day I thought: “Well, Ellroy is an White American who wrote a brilliant novel named White Jazz. I’m a French Arab who wrote a hopefully brilliant novel named Arab Jazz.” And the idea made me laugh.

The English publication of Arab Jazz is very timely, following the tragic events that overtook Paris early in January. In the novel, you examine the religious tensions and present a background, of sorts, as to what could have led to those events. When you were writing the novel, was there ever a feeling that you might be hitting a little bit close to home or was there a sense of inevitability that the melting pot might produce something?

Actually the melting pot had already produced many things when I was writing Arab Jazz. In terms of terrorism, we had Khaled Kelkal in the nineties, an Algerian-born kid raised in France, who had conducted several terrorist attacks before being killed. And after him, there was the group of the Buttes-Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement, the very territory of Arab Jazz. Some youngsters attracted by a self-proclaimed Imam were sent to Iraq. Most of them died there in suicide attacks or in the battle of Fallujah. I had been reading about the trial of the survivors of this jihadi group in 2008, while writing Arab Jazz, and the self-proclaimed imam of that group inspired one of the characters of the book. It was this imam who recruited one of the Kouachi brothers. When the Charlie Hebdo attack happened, I was, like everybody, horrified by the murders but also really disturbed by the way reality had re-entered my novel.

The pair of detectives at the centre of the novel – Rachel Kupferstein, an Ashkenazi Jew, and Jean Hamelot, a Breton from a communist family – are, to say the least, somewhat unconventional. Can you talk a bit about the origins of the characters, of the partnership, and of the challenges you faced when writing these two very different (from each other and from any of their contemporaries) individuals?

Rachel and Jean really popped up in front of my surprised eyes a few moments after Ahmed did, at the very beginning at the writing process. Suddenly they were there, teasing each other in front of a dead body, like typical cops. But the dialogue was not that classical. Jean was quoting Goebbels’ famous sentence: “The bigger the lie, the more it’ll be believed, and Rachel answered him in a way that implied she was Jewish, but a Jew who did not care that much about identity. At that moment, I knew them, I knew they were unconventional cops. I knew that Jean was attracted to his colleague but that nothing more than a kiss could happen between them. The challenge was to listen carefully to their voice, and follow them.

And can we expect to see more of Kupferstein and Hamelot in the future?

Arab Jazz is going to be a trilogy, so, yes, we’ll see more of them. And of Ahmed too. Some of the bad guys will also be there, so that we can have a really nice murder party with lots of Godzwill.

One of the central “characters” in the novel is the unique and captivating nineteenth arrondissement of Paris itself. How did you go about setting the scene and capturing the atmosphere to give the reader the sense of place required to understand the complex relationships between the different communities who share this small piece of the city?

I was living in the 19th when I began writing Arab Jazz. In a way, I just had to walk the streets, look at the people and let my imagination do the rest. One day, I was having a hair cut at a Moroccan Jewish hairdresser close to my place. While waiting for my turn, I heard him speak Arabic with the Moroccan Muslim mother of the kid whose hair he was cutting. The image and the words remained there, in my head. A few days later, I created the character of Sam, the dangerous hairdresser. Without knowing it, the real hairdresser had given birth to his literary double. He was an observant Jew, at the same time culturally Arab and politically anti-Arab. He embodied the contradictions of the nineteenth where Arabs and Jews are caught in a love-hate relationship. Upon these contradictions, I built my story.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

Balzac, Brett Easton-Ellis, Marcel Proust, Marguerite Yourcenar, Hanif Kureishi, Dashiell Hammet, Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes and Horace McCoy, Jean-Patrick Manchette (the guy who re-invented French noir in the seventies). George Orwell, Philip K. Dick, Frantz Fanon, Marguerite Duras. So many others…

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

Black Skin, White Masks (Fanon), 1984 (Orwell), A Harlot High and Low (Balzac), The Abyss (Yourcenar)

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Karim Miské look like?

When I’m in Paris, I cannot come to understand what happens during the day: I spend hours in front of my computer without managing to write a single word. Then, late at night, when everybody sleeps, sometimes, I finally end up writing a few paragraphs. After a few weeks like this, I freak out and decide to bury myself somewhere in the countryside. There, I write.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

I don’t really see fiction-writing as a career because most writers can’t make a living out of it. Hence my first advice: don’t leave your job if you have one. Then, read a lot, write a lot. When you think you’ve got something worth showing, find a good reader, someone you trust i.e. not your mother or your lover. Ask your reader to give you deadlines and stick to it until you have written a first version. Then re-write it from the beginning, then look for an agent and/or a publisher.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I am reading lots of crime and scifi novels, looking for new ideas for a TV channel. The last book I read for pleasure is Savages by Don Winslow and I really enjoyed it!

If Arab Jazz should ever make the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

As I am primarily a film maker, I’d love to direct it myself, but if a director I admire wants to do it, I can reconsider my position. In terms of casts, I actually have no idea for the moment, but once it’s getting serious, I’ll be watching tons of films to find the perfect actors.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

Let’s begin with the beverage. Sorry for the noir cliché, but it’s going to be a bottle of Jack Daniels, because it’s nice, from time to time, to empty one with friends, talking about live, death, love and stuff. I’d like to share it with James Baldwin. We’d talk about literature, race and gender until the bottle is emptied and the dawn is rising.

Thank you once again, Karim, for taking time out to share your thoughts.

Karim will be in the UK to celebrate the launch of Arab Jazz. If you’re close to any of the events below, I’d recommend trying to catch him.

7pm, 9 February 2015 Karim Miské will be talking to Tariq Ali at Blackwell’s Oxford – tickets £3 from Blackwell’s, Broad Street, Oxford or 01865 333623/http://bookshop.blackwell.co.uk/stores/oxford-bookshop/2015/01/15/tariq-ali-launches-karim-miskes-debut-novel-arab-jazz/

7pm, 10 February 2015 ‘Spectrum of Radicalism – Fact and Fiction’ Karim Miské, Suzanne Moore, Kenan Malik and Ben Faccini will be discussing multiculturalism and fundamentalism at the French Institute on 10 February at 7pm. Tickets £8 http://www.institut-francais.org.uk/events-calendar/whats-on/talks/writing-the-story-of-urban-multiculturalism-arab-jazz-by-karim-miske/

7pm, 11 February 2015 Elif Shafak in conversation with Karim  Miské and Sarah Lotz, at Waterstones Piccadilly talking about ‘Colliding Faiths – religious fundamentalism in global fiction’. Tickets free, but email piccadilly@waterstones.com

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